common application help

Update: Read the latest tips for the 2016-17 Common App.

So the dust has settled. For the past several days, students have been hard at work trying to complete the three dozen or so digital pages that comprise the Common Application. Once you get the hang of it, navigating the Common App becomes almost second nature; you’ll soon find yourself deftly flipping from one section to another with the swift click of a button. But there are still some hidden tricks and common pitfalls that plague many applicants each year. In Part II of our in-depth look at the 2015 Common Application, we’ll answer your frequently asked questions related to the Education, Testing, and Activities pages. Don’t see your burning question listed below? Post a comment at the bottom of the screen, and you’ll have your answer soon enough!

Education Page

Q: If I attended an elementary school overseas, or if I attended a pre-college summer program, should I list that information in the “Other School” section?

Other School Common App

A: No. This section of the application is specifically for students who attended more than one high school. If you have attended the same high school from grades 9-12, you should mark, “0” here. Note: in some school districts, grade 9 is located in a separate building than the high school. Even in these instances, the number of “other schools” you have attended should be “0.”

Q: How do I know if I received help from a CBO?

Common App CBO

A: Receiving application support from a college counselor, teacher, or other advisor does not count as a “Community-Based Organization.” CBOs are non-profit groups that provide free college counseling and educational advising services to underserved students. Examples of CBOs include Boys & Girls Clubs, Prep for Prep, and Upward Bound.

Q: If I transferred high schools, do I have to report an “Education Interruption?”

Education Interruption Common App

A: Yes, yes, yes! When I used to review college applications, I was always frustrated to see a student list a second high school in the “Other School” section, only to leave the “Education Interruption” section blank. I know… I know. No one wants to complete an additional essay explaining why they moved from one high school to another, but by not providing colleges with this information, you’re (a) at best: missing an opportunity to explain your educational background in more detail, and (b) at worst: inadvertently providing colleges an opportunity to assume the worst regarding your reason for transferring. Even if you education wasn’t “interrupted” in the truest sense (you didn’t miss any school or take time off in between the transition), please select “did or will change secondary schools” and write a brief explanation in the space provided.

Q: Does a pre-college summer program count as a college course on the “Colleges & Universities” tab?

Common App Colleges and Universities

A: There’s an important distinction to make between a college credit course and a summer enrichment program. In the former, students take a college-level class and earn a grade at the conclusion of the course, accompanied by an appropriate number of college credits. In the latter, students spend time on a college campus and may be enrolled in a class that helps prepare them for college life, but no college credit is actually earned. While both opportunities may prove to be valuable to a student’s growth, colleges are most interested in learning about for-credit academic experiences in this section of the Common Application. For example, at Boston University, students can earn college credit through the school’s High School Honors summer program, while their Summer Preview program is considered an enrichment experience. If you’d like to include a reference to your pre-college summer enrichment program somewhere in your application, consider listing it instead on the “Activities” page of the application.

Q: Should I self-report my GPA and/or class rank?

Grades Section of Common App

A: In the “Grades” section of the Common Application, there is just one required question: what is the approximate size of your graduating class? Unless you are 100 percent certain of your exact GPA and/or class rank, consider leaving the optional questions blank. Many colleges recalculate students’ GPAs according to their own school’s criteria, and it’s becoming increasingly common for high schools to withhold exact rank. Rather than running into the risk if misrepresenting your own academic data, why not let admissions officers evaluate your statistics from the primary source – your high school transcript?

Q: I don’t have any honors to list. Does this look bad?

A: To help even the playing field, many high schools do not confer honors or awards to its students, and at those schools that do, earning one of the coveted tributes can be difficult in a sea of competition. If you don’t have any formal academic honors to list, leaving the “Honors” section blank is absolutely fine. The majority of colleges that accept the Common Application evaluate students holistically; whether or not an applicant lists one, five, or even zero academic accolades will not make or break a student’s application.

Testing Page

Q: Should I self-report my SAT or ACT scores?

Testing Page Common App

A: This is becoming an increasingly difficult question to answer. Why? Because the standardized testing landscape is constantly changing. One year, College A requires the writing section of the ACT, but the following year, it becomes optional. College B allows for Score Choice, while College C does not. And College D just announced that it is now test optional. To play it safe, students should feel absolutely comfortable leaving this section blank. If a college requests SAT or ACT scores, be sure to send along an official score report from the appropriate testing agency, and college officials will add the necessary scores to your file. The majority of colleges will only “count” test scores obtained from an official score report anyway, so there is no real benefit to self-reporting your own results. Note: if you have not yet taken any standardized tests yet, but you are planning on doing so this fall, consider answering “yes” to the initial question (“Do you wish to self-report scores or future test dates for any of the following standardized tests?”); “0” for the “number of SAT/ACT scores you wish to report” and “1” for “number of future SAT/ACT sittings you expect.” This way, colleges will know that new score results will be arriving in the near future.

Q: Can I self-report only my best SAT/ACT scores, or do I have to list them all?

SAT Self Reporting Common App

A: If you read the wording on the “Testing” page carefully, you’ll find that students are allowed the liberty of self-selecting their top scores. It’s the inclusion of “wish” that makes this all possible. Consider the following prompts: “Do you wish to self-report scores,” “Indicate all tests you wish to report,” and “Number of SAT/ACT scores you wish to report.” In theory, then, students can technically choose to report only their strongest scores and, thereby, omit their weakest ones. If a student has taken the SAT on three occasions – March, May, and June – and he received his best Critical Reading score on the May test, and the best Math and Writing scores on the June test, he could simply answer “2” to the question, “Number of SAT/ACT scores you wish to report.” And then, because the Common App asks for your “highest critical reading score,” “highest math score,” and “highest writing score” (and never “all” of your scores), students can effectively showcase their best scores.

The bigger question is, should students do this? If you’ve already decided that you do want to self-report test scores, you should have no qualms about following the instructions of the Common App and reporting only your strongest scores. Even if you are applying to a college that doesn’t allow for Score Choice on the SAT, remember that your official score report carries all of the weight; what you choose to list on the Common Application is essentially extraneous.

Activities Page

Q: What’s the best way for me to list my clubs and activities?

A: Aside from the conventional “list your most significant activities first” suggestion, I have one other bit of advice to share regarding the “Activities” page, and it stems from a major pet peeve of mine. Given the order of the wording for the first prompt (“Position/Leadership description and organization name, if applicable”), I suppose it’s no surprise that many students choose to focus on the “position/leadership description” rather than the “organization name.” But it’s incredibly shocking when students simply omit the “organization name” altogether! It’s hard to gain a clear picture of a student’s extracurricular profile when all she’s listed is “Vice President,” “Member,” and “First Chair” when she’s omitting the club or organization name itself! Something along the lines of “Key Club – Vice President,” “Student Senate – Member,” and “Orchestra – First Chair Cello” would be much more appropriate.

Q: Where can I upload my résumé?

A: Simply put, you can’t upload a formatted copy of your résumé within the main part of the Common Application. Some students have taken to using the “Additional Information” section of the “Writing” page as a backdoor tool for submitting their résumés, but that’s not the intended purpose of that space. (Nor should you wish to aggravate admissions officers by submitting supplemental materials that they don’t want or require.) Unless you specifically see a prompt like this on a school-specific supplement – “If you wish to submit your résumé, you may upload it here” or “Additional Information (optional): Please use this space if you have additional information, materials, or writing samples you would like us to consider” – assume that the main portion of the Common App will be submitted without one.

In just a few days, we’ll feature our third and final installment of our Common App series. Coming up next – the Writing Page, the Recommenders and FERPA Page, the “Writing Requirements” section of the Dashboard, and the Common App Help Center – all brought to you by your friendly Common App experts here at College Coach.

Check out Elyse’s other Common App articles:

Listen to Elyse’s segments on the 2015-16 Common App on Getting In: A College Coach Conversation:



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Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Elyse received her BA in linguistics from Dartmouth College and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining College Coach, Elyse worked as an admissions officer at Barnard College and Bennington College.